ST. LOUIS - Bartolo Colon grabbed at the loose fabric of his jersey and wiped the sweat from his face and neck. Mercifully, his night was over.

For the Mets righthander, the end came in the fifth inning of a 12-2 loss to the Cardinals, one that underscored an uncomfortable reality.

While the pitching has done plenty to carry the Mets to the edge of contention, the hitting rarely reciprocates.

So when the first inning ended with the Mets trailing 4-0 Saturday night -- an early sign that Colon lacked his best stuff -- the remaining eight innings almost seemed cruel.

Colon, 42, allowed seven runs and eight hits in just 41/3 innings, matching his shortest start of the season. The outing was a near repeat of his May 20 performance against the Cardinals, when he was bashed for nine runs and 11 hits.

"I felt good," Colon said through an interpreter. "But they felt better than me because they were connecting with everything I threw."

advertisement | advertise on newsday

On a humid 93-degree night, Colon (9-8) watched his ERA rise to 4.86, the highest within a starting rotation that has been otherwise brilliant.

Mets starters entered play with a 1.62 ERA in their previous 17 games. But it was clear from the first that it would be a short night for Colon, who is winless in his last five starts.

The Mets understood the challenge they faced in this stretch of the schedule: 10 straight games against the three division leaders in the National League, including the Cardinals, owners of the best record in baseball.

Now, the Mets need a victory Sunday in order to avoid a three-game sweep before going to Washington to play the Nationals, who lead the Mets by three games in the NL East.

"It's only two games," Mets manager Terry Collins said of the grueling stretch thus far. "We can make a judgment after we play the next eight."

Mets videos

The Cardinals sent 10 men to the plate in the first inning against Colon, who at one point surrendered three straight run-scoring hits. He also plunked Randal Grichuk with the bases loaded to force in the fourth run of the inning, all as reliever Carlos Torres warmed up.

Grichuk finished with two homers and six RBIs.

After needing 32 pitches to get through the first, Colon appeared to settle in, though that proved to be a mirage.

The Cardinals pushed their lead to 5-0 in the fifth on back-to-back doubles by Jhonny Peralta and Jason Heyward, who tied a career high with five hits.

Mark Reynolds added an RBI single, which KO'd Colon.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

The righthander's brutal night also included a fielding error in the third when his pickoff throw to second wound up in centerfield.

At the plate, Colon short-circuited one of the Mets' rare chances to score against the Cardinals' John Lackey (8-5), when he bunted into a double play.

Terry Collins wondered if Colon had been impacted by the inactivity of the All-Star break. He noted Colon's three walks, an uncharacteristic night for the command specialist.

Said Collins: "He showed a little rust."

The Mets finished with 12 hits but scratched across only two runs, the first on Michael Cuddyer's sixth-inning solo shot, his eighth homer of the year.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

"It's encouraging that we got 12 hits," Cuddyer said. "But when you get 12 hits, you want to put more than a couple of runs up."